Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pesach: A seder for a Schikza

      My husband wanted to go to a seder at Congregation Shalom this year, since they were offering it on the second night. Some friends also wanted to go so they put together a table of 8 for this event.

     I couldn't help thinking about all my past seders. I recall attending a seder with Amos soon after we met. It was held in a large basement hall somewhere at the University of Wisc, Madison. The seder attendees were mostly Israelis and the seder was all conducted in Hebrew. This was my first exposure to long periods of the language and I didn't know what was going on. But my lack of understanding actually made this a memorable seder for me, because I could just sit and enjoy what was going on around me. And believe me there was a lot going on. Young children were running around and not participating very much until they were offered the prize for finding the afikomen, of course. Adults were at times getting up and going to the restroom or quietly going over to another to speak quietly about something.Sometimes an adult even went to speak with the rabbi that was running the seder. It was totally informal, but very very long. It was forever before we got a chance to eat something. But this seder made me an experienced attendee when first invited to Ghita's for a seder. Amos and I were guests at her seders for upwards of 20 years. When our sons came along they were included. After we moved to Milwaukee we drove from Milwaukee over to Madison to attend. When our oldest went to college and then medical school in Madison, he was always invited to the seder at Ghita's house. Her husband led the seder in a calm and relaxed way. He didn't always know what came next but Ghita would gently guide him. She wished the order of the seder to be proper. I recall one year when Ghita did not invite us. We were not sure why. But she then called and apologized. She said that she had made a mistake by not inviting us, but she had been concerned about me being a Gentile and marrying an Israeli, and the negative example that would produce for her own children. Israelis have always been very special to American Jews and this would have made the wrong impression on teenage children. I completely understood. One year I conducted a seder in my own home in Milwaukee, with Amos' parents and brother's family attending. I made all the correct foods. We video taped the whole thing. It was especially moving to hear Amos' quiet father chanting and singing the words to the seder. I think that my mother in law was very shocked that I did this. Another year I made gefelte fish from scratch. I bought the fish pieces and purchased a Cuisinart machine to chop the fish. I didn't know that the fish market would chop the fish for me free of charge. My whole house smelled of fish for days. I had some left over after passover and Easter was just a couple days later, so I took some of the gifelte fish home and told my family that it was fish balls. They gamely tried it and very couteously said they liked it. All of these experiences should have made me more and more comfortable at this very sanctified occasion.
     Still after all these past expereiences -- experiences that I actually talked about at this one -- still I feel like an outsider. Well, why shouldn't I feel like an outsider. I am an outsider. I am a Gentile. I didn't grow up with this vast history going back to BCE with Moses. And of course the seder tells that story marvelously. Of course the Pesach meal is really a celebration of freedom that takes place at a family meal in the home for most people. As we participated in the B's seder for years in Madison. The adults feel the necessity of teaching this ancient story to their offspring and the guest in that home feels this history strongly as well. But this Pesach seder held in the synogogue already states that most of those present are also outsiders in some way. Because they are here and not having a seder in their own home on the second night. Many Jewish families have seders both nights. These people either don't have enough family members and friends to hold one both nights, or the wife doesn't want to go to all the work of doing two nights (and it is a lot, a lot of work for the wife). There were older attendees and some handicap attendees who probably physically couldn't do the seder in their own home. There were a few couples with children there. I don't know their story. But in a way, we were all outsiders this second night.

     I have just read a book called The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, who is an agnostic. He says that the Moses story never even happened. There is no evidence that a people of the Book won their freedom from Egypt and escaped, wandered the desert for 40 years and then came into Canaan from the outside and brutally conquered the locals, destroying their cities. Particularly there is no evidence of multiple destroyed cities from the same time period. Instead, there is evidence that the Israelites and their worship of Yahweh arose within Canaan itself, taking steps forward and then steps backwards from worship for their one true God and back to polytheism and then forward again to worship of the one God. So here I sat at this Seder table hearing that old story told again and not sure whether even to believe it. Yet it is so the basis of this religion.
     Some years ago I felt that I understood the religion of my husband's tribe as both he and I call them. I felt the feeling of history, of exact knowledge about where your ancestors come from and who they were, going all the way back to Biblical times. I felt the sanctity of the law having been delivered to this people by their God all those eons ago and still surviving today in the 21st century. This knowledge alone without all the religious doctrine provides a strong feeling of belonging and of spiritiual connection going way back. It's something like what I felt when overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives -- human beings have been here for eons -- this glorious city has been a capitol for them for 5000 years. Similar feelings arse from wondering the ruins of Megiddo, a city that was destroyed and rebuilt at least 28 times as evidenced by the layers in the archeological digs. These humans were so resolute, so tenacious, could not be put down. Some of these feelings I envy in people of the Jewish faith. Christianity doesn't have such feelings. Indeed, Christianity has to borrow those feelings from the Old Testament, ie use the same feelings of history that the Jews use.
     So here I sat at this Seder table, feeling an outsider through no fault of any of my hosts, whether close friends or other strangers in the room. I know what to do, I know the order of the seder. The word seder after all means order. I know many of the songs that are sung. I know about the 4 cups of wine and know when to raise the cups in tribute and honor. I know some of the Hebrew. And I can speak with our close friends very eruditely. I can feel warm and fuzzy and can say the correct nice thing to them. And yet, I am an outsider. In some ways I feel I am putting on an act. At some previous seders I have attended, those sitting around me didn't know I was not a Jew and because I knew so much about the ritual, I could play act. I could be a Jew for the night. I recall that feeling after the evening was over and I realized deep inside that I had playacted the whole evening. I am not a Jew and I am sitting at their table at one of their most celebrated holidays. It does put me in my place. But it also speaks to this people and their religion. No one has ever said or done anything to produce this discomfort in me. I have been accepted and treated with nothing but warmth and hospitality. That very major fact must have something to do with why the People of the Book still are a dominant force in modern society.

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